I’ve been a freelance designer for the last nine years, and it’s been an absolute blast. After leaving an in-house team at a huge, high-pressure organisation, I wanted to work on small, interesting things. I’ve worked on a more diverse range of projects than I could ever have dreamed of. Stuff for TV, stuff for film, stuff for theatre. Stuff for startups, stuff for big companies, stuff for individuals. Stuff for little screens, stuff for big screens. Stuff to help people sell stories, and stuff to help people tell stories. Stuff for kids, stuff for tweens, stuff for adults. Stuff that took a day, stuff that took months.
It’s not always been easy, but it’s always been brilliant. I can honestly say there wasn’t a single day where I dreaded going to work, or felt a bit depressed on a Sunday evening. I’ve met some amazing, helpful, and supremely clever people, and made some real friends along the way. I’m truly thankful.
Going freelance was the right thing to do, at the right point in my life. Working from home when I had a partner and baby at home (and then another baby), meant I had the opportunity to see them grow, attend every play and sport event, and drop everything when there was an emergency.
But they’re bigger now, and recently I’ve been getting the itch to work on something a bit grander than I usually do. Something where I can use my experience to influence something at scale, where there isn’t necessarily an end point (yet). And it’s hard to do that when you work for yourself.
So I am hanging up the old freelancing gloves, to join NHS.UK as a lead designer. The scale of things to do — building new services that take advantage of digital, that are available to all, and that make people’s lives easier, healthier and safer — is HUGE. It’s incredibly exciting, and not a little daunting.
I’ve been working there on a freelance basis for a few months, and have been so impressed by the people working there, the ambition, the knowledge, it didn’t take long for me to consider a permanent role when one arose.
I thought I’d list a few things I’ve noticed since I started here.
1. Everyone’s really clever
Like, really clever. Folks seem to be at the top of their game, and know their professions inside-out. The designers are inquisitive, the developers are rigorous, the researchers are constantly debating best practice on Slack. Collectively, this means a lot of brain power and skill going into what we make. It also means impostor syndrome is once again a very close friend.
2. Everyone cares
You don’t join the NHS if you want some cool projects for your portfolio. Everyone I’ve met has a belief in the principle of the NHS, as well as wanting to make things better for people. It’s fantastic to see people examine problems from all angles, considering how people might be feeling when, say, they’ve just had a worrying diagnosis, and need to find information, or learn to manage their condition. No one is phoning it in here.
3. Trust is a complex issue
The NHS brand is one of the most trusted in the world. People trust it completely. If they see the NHS logo on something, they believe it must be good for them, or made for the right reasons. This creates an interesting dynamic. Normally at the start of design projects, you work hard to earn people’s trust. But with the NHS, you already have it, and thus one must take care to maintain and heighten it. Which leads to interesting discussions around people’s privacy.
I’ve observed many workshops where members of the public have assumed (and are happy that) we already know their entire medical history. But that doesn’t mean we should assume they would be happy with us, say, tracking their behaviour online. Imagine if the NHS website started recommending content based on our knowing you had viewed content about pregnancy, or cancer symptoms! Facebook has long tried to obfuscate how much they know about their users (and how they find it out). As digital NHS products become more sophisticated and personal, we need to educate people on their data and rights. People need to feel safe and cared-for, not studied or judged.
4. Paper prototypes are (still) useful and fun
I made some paper prototypes of some design ideas, to hang on the wall and get people trying things out. Turned out to be a fun way to get people chatting about it, as well as a useful artefact to pass around in meetings. Make a card phone and try it yourself!
5. Designing for everyone isn’t easy, but it is possible
Designing for inclusivity is at the core of how things get made at NHS.UK. The NHS is for everyone, and thus so are NHS services accessed via the web. It’s challenging, and we will no doubt make mistakes as we develop and refine our approach, and try new things. But we will do it, and we will share what we learn as we go.
Onwards into 2018
It’s been an abrupt transition, from working with small teams, on mostly quick, fun projects for the last nine years, to re-entering the world of large, multi-location, in-house design work. But the time is right. It’s a privilege to work for the NHS, and be able to use my powers for good. I get to work on a huge, multi-faceted, ever-changing design problem, with the aim of improving people’s health. I get to work with incredibly smart people, and learn lots. It’s very exciting.